Dr. Jay W. Richards gave an impassioned address at the heavily attended Acton Lecture series yesterday titled, “Myths Christians Believe about Wealth and Poverty.” This topic was especially relevant for me because I graduated from a Wesleyan Evangelical seminary, which constantly preached and proclaimed so many myths Richards addressed, especially “the piety myth.” This was a big problem in seminary, as the gospels were often linked to promoting the modern welfare state, and its goals of wealth redistribution.
Richards said the piety myth “focuses on our good intentions rather than the unintended consequences of our actions.” An example he provided was rent control, which causes major shortages in housing, and of course the quality of housing. Moderately priced housing also diminishes significantly in communities with rent control.
Another essential example cited by Richards was the “zero-sum game myth,” which holds that wealth gained in one place always means that wealth was lost someplace else. To illustrate this myth, Richards used the example of pie, saying that if somebody cuts for themselves a larger piece by proportion, somebody else of course loses out. Most economists and entrepreneurs however understand that wealth is created, and Richards used the example of sand and the explosion of the microchip. Natural resources are one example of something being harvested for production and consumption.
While I was at seminary the hip thing was crusading against the retail giant Wal-Mart. Many students wanted to play the William Wilberforce role by freeing Wal-Mart suppliers from “slave trade” status. Wal-Mart was constantly accused of not providing a living wage, closing down small businesses, and causing the explosion of international sweat-shops. It was described as a “social justice” issue. In his talk, Richards did a fine job of explaining Wal-Mart’s value in the marketplace. And how places like Wal-Mart provide a reduction in food costs, especially for poorer families who spend more of their disposable income by percentage on food. Obviously many of the critics at my seminary came from upper middle class backgrounds who saw no use for a 25 cent savings on a grocery product, especially if it interfered with their notion of social justice.
In Richards lecture, he noted the need for comparisons between reality and reality, instead of reality and myth or reality vs. utopia notions. He said “many factories get accused of being sweat-shops.” He cited that sometimes the notion exists in the critics head that if the “sweat-shop” was closed down that person would be provided with an education, and a fantastic college degree, which is closer to the truth here in America, but not necessarily true somewhere else. It may be that their job keeps them out of the sex trade, or a life of wandering the streets searching for food, which I saw quite a bit while living in Africa. It’s also been said that many of these places of employment dubbed as “sweat-shops” have provided people in the Third World with the concept and practice of weekends for the first time in their life. In many places a culture of recreation and leisure time is existing for the first time among the poorer classes. The explosion of the middle class in places like India and China is a phenomenon we do not hear very often in news reports.
While compassion for the poor is a universal truth for Christians, compassion alone is not enough. As Christians we need to better understand why wealth is not being created in some places. Richards surmised class warfare serves more as a decoy, when we focus more on income disparity, rather than results. We will continue to see outdated recycled economic philosophies used to create Utopian societies. Communism promised a society of absolute equality, it just had to break a few eggs to achieve the omelet, right? Truth exists, and that is why Richards was so right to say free markets must not be weighed against unrealizable ideals, but rather live alternatives.